Chocolate-makers raise the bar

August 13, 2008|By Betty Hallock | Betty Hallock,Los Angeles Times

SAN FRANCISCO - Meet the new Willy Wonka: Timothy Childs is a former space-shuttle technologist who's building a 29,000-square-foot chocolate factory on prime waterfront property in the Embarcadero.

He stands in the factory's laboratory, inspecting a sample of split-open cocoa beans, pointing out the ones that have been properly fermented and talking intensely about the hedonics of chocolate - as in the hedonistic sensation of eating it, how it melts in the mouth, when it starts to break apart and the way in which flavors and sugars are released.

"We're freaks about it," says Childs, chief chocolate officer (his official title) of Tcho.

He's not the only sweet tooth/techno-tinkerer with chocolate on the mind. In fact, Childs is one of a generation of new Willy Wonkas, a recent crop of American bean-to-bar chocolate makers who are building their own factories - sometimes their own machinery - and tracking down cocoa beans to transform them into bars of chocolate (also known as couverture), for eating and for making confections.

There's no mistaking these chocolate makers for traditional chocolatiers, who create confections such as bonbons and truffles. Instead of enthusing about ganache, they're wont to talk about cacao genetics or the advantages of a roller mill versus a ball mill during chocolate refining.

These entrepreneurs tend to be excited about a just-found piece of vintage machinery or the next shipment of beans from Bolivia. They're continuously experimenting with roasting times, for example, or with stone-grinding techniques.

The result is an envelope-pushing variety of chocolate, some of which is on par with the chocolate from European producers that connoisseurs have long considered the standard.

"We haven't even seen how great chocolate can be yet," says Colin Gasko, owner of Rogue Chocolatier, who launched his Minneapolis company in November.

Bean-to-bar is industry parlance for the complicated process by which cacao is turned into chocolate. The bean-to-bar process involves roasting the beans; breaking them into small pieces called nibs and removing the shells (referred to as winnowing); grinding the nibs, usually with sugar, to form a chocolate paste; then refining and conching (very forceful kneading) to produce the desired smoothness and to develop flavors.

Depending on the chocolate maker's stylistic approach, the following ingredients might be added: vanilla, additional cocoa butter and/or soy lecithin. After it's tempered (heated then cooled to a certain temperature, so that it has sheen and snap), the chocolate is poured into molds.

Until recently, the process was the domain of mass producers, even in the 12 years since groundbreaking Scharffen Berger started making chocolate in Berkeley, Calif. In the last couple of years, inventive chocolate makers have popped up across the U.S. In Brooklyn, a couple of cocoa-loving brothers are building a "chocolaterie and laboratory" in the south Williamsburg neighborhood. Childs teamed with Wired magazine co-founder Louis Rossetto to form Tcho, refurbishing equipment shipped from an old chocolate factory in Wernigerode, Germany.

Tcho, which is set to open in the first quarter of next year, is among the biggest of the new wave of chocolate makers, with 18 employees and with the capacity to make 3 tons at a time. "That's still less than what the big guys spill during a shift change," Childs says.

Artisanal "micro-batch" producers are coming out with 50 to 1,000 pounds at a time, with just one or two people making the chocolate, such as Art Pollard of Amano Artisan Chocolate in Orem, Utah; Steve DeVries of DeVries Chocolate in Denver; Alan McClure of Columbia, Mo.-based Patric Chocolate; and Gasko's Rogue Chocolatier.

Now "there's more interest in chocolate and there's high enough prices for chocolate to make it feasible to have a small company," says DeVries, a former glass manufacturer who pursued chocolate making after a trip to Costa Rica several years ago and his first encounter with a cocoa pod.

"Three years from now, we'll probably see double the number of chocolate makers [in the U.S.]," Childs says. "It sounds banal, but it reflects back to the Internet and technology. Before it was so hard just to have communication with growing areas. Now practices get communicated, contacts established, samples and feedback are sent. Sourcing the cocoa is the hardest thing to do, making it is second-hardest."

Childs says that there's enough information on chocolate-making Web sites to "let people make it on their own and find people who can help them. We couldn't do this 10 years ago; we couldn't do this five years ago."

Meanwhile, by the time Hershey Co. bought Scharffen Berger in 2005 and then Portland, Ore.-based Dagoba the following year, the gap left by industry consolidation was ready to be filled. In 2006, Joseph Whinney founded Seattle-based Theo, the first roaster of organic and fair-trade cocoa beans in the U.S., according to its Web site.

Many bean-to-bar producers say they're motivated by the possibilities for tremendous change in chocolate making - in the possible increase in quality to be gained if producers control the way that the bean is handled at the source as well as by paying obsessive attention to how their machinery affects the development of flavors.

"I was curious," DeVries says. "How could it be that I could grind this stuff in my kitchen and have more complex chocolate than any I'd ever had before?

"We have so much upside now. If the French bought all their grapes in shiploads from Africa, how good would the wine be? That's about where we are with chocolate."

Betty Hallock writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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